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November 14, 2004

Evangelicals and outreach

Democrats have been speculating about how to reach out to evangelical Christians. This discussion would be more productive if participants were more explicit about their concepts of outreach.

There are at least three different outreach models floating around. Call them "compromise," "image," and "alternative." This division isn't meant to be exhaustive or exclusive. In fact, most outreach proposals combine strategies from all three models.

Compromise outreach calls for substantive policy changes on social issues like abortion and gay rights. Proponents of compromise urge Democrats to change their platform to appeal to evangelical voters.

Image outreach is concerned primarily with marketing the Democratic brand to religious people in religious terms. Proponents of image outreach are apt to scold Democrats for alleged condescension and demand Democratic leaders who are "comfortable" talking about "faith" and "values." Image outreach and compromise outreach are mutually compatible. Most proponents of compromise outreach also endorse image-based approaches. However, many Democrats advocate image alterations as an alternative to substantive compromise on social policy.

At this point, neither compromise- nor image-based outreach seems promising. Compromise outreach to is morally unacceptable and politically naive. Image outreach is already underway but it doesn't seem to be working. Nor should we expect it to. Evangelicals have a very specific policy agenda and no amount of god-talk or "respect" will win them over without credible promises to deliver their goods. Besides, the right wing propaganda machine ably slimes all religious overtures by Democrats as insincere or condescending, thereby sinking us deeper into the hole that image outreach was supposed to dig us out of.

Alternative outreach proposals call upon Democrats to reach out to evangelicals without necessarily reaching out to them qua culturally conservative evangelicals. Alternative outreach differs from compromise outreach in that it doesn't call for changes in Democratic values or policies.

Alternative outreach comes in two main flavors: religious and non-religious. So far, the best known non-religious outreach strategies are populist. The goal is to appeal to middle and working class citizens. Many of these people are also evangelicals, but the hope is that a populist economic message will sway them independently of their religious affiliation.

Other alternative outreach schemes are self-consciously religious, i.e., they hope to reach out directly to voters and religious institutions in much the same way as the corporate right has already done. Religious outreach identifies core Democratic values that resonate with core evangelical values and forges alliances based on shared objectives. The civil rights movement may be an example of a mutually beneficial alliance between Democrats and evangelicals. I'm not an expert on this period, but it seems that this alliance was built on areas of substantive policy agreement. During the civil rights era Democrats didn't reach out to evangelicals with slick marketing, they cemented practical alliances based on true common cause.

I don't know whether Democrats can find equally compelling areas of common ground with evangelical groups today. Perhaps Democrats can make common cause with evangelical groups over economic justice, peace, or other issues of mutual concern. The alliance between the religious right and the corporate right may seem inevitable in retrospect, but it too is built on a sometimes uneasy compromise. Proponents of religious alternative outreach are urging Democrats to cultivate compromise in the other direction (economic interests over cultural interests). Whether such outreach is feasible remains an empirical question.

In lieu of a conlclusion, here's an interesting article about the growth of evangelical congregations in New York City:

The Political Conversion of New York's Evangelicals [NYT permalink]


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I still hold out hope for an image+alternative combination. But I don't think that quoting the Bible a lot is what we're talking about for 'image' -- what we want is a Democrat whom non-crazy red-state religious people will recognize as one of them (yes, I mean John Edwards). My sense here is that 'values' talk is in part a cover for regionalism, and that its bite will weaken once you relax people's regionalist passions.

Image+alternative is my preferred combination, too. I think Barack Obama is an excellent example of the image+alternative approach. He conveys both both secular and religious arguments for Democratic objectives with force and credibility. He doesn't have the regional cred, but I suspect that he could overcome that with good marketing and judicious choice of running mate. (I'll lay off the Obama-2008-talk now, I promise.)

Re: Obama

Would people from the south really vote for a guy who has done coke like Obama?

Not if he's black they won't.

Hasn't everyone tried coke? (Or, maybe in 2008 David Brooks will be pontificating about the Coke States vs the Meth States vs the Hydroponic Belt...)

Seriously, though, is the evidence that Obama has tried cocaine better than the evidence that W. had a habit serious enough to get him arrested?

That's probably the wrong question to be asking, given the notorious willingness of America to uphold racist double standards. But regardless, suppose Obama makes the politically smart move ASAP and either owns up or categorically denies those rumors. (I have no opinion as to what the facts are, but I suspect the American public is in the same boat. I have consummate faith in Obama's instincts with regard to the right decision. He is the best natural politician to come along since JFK, or since Pierre Trudeau if the politicians of my homeland count.)

Americans are more or less willing to forgive youthful indiscretions. I mean, W's DUI came to light in the waning weeks of the 2000 campaign and nobody seemed to mind.

In all seriousness, I doubt Obama's (alleged) drug use will matter, especially not at any point when he might have a serious go at the Democratic nomination.

I do not think there is much point in trying to reach out to evangelicals as a group. Instead, we have to identify the Christians who, like Lescek Kolakowski, believe that faith without works is dead, as opposed to those who believe that they are justified by faith alone.

I guess, then, that this would be image outreach, this would be counterimage outreach, and this would be image counteroutreach?

I still think that the key is to use wedge issues to separate moderate Christians from the extreme right wing. Evangelicals aren't really the problem, it is their reactionary faction that causes the problem. Not all Evangelicals, or even all fundamentalists, voted Republican this time, but one huge problem is that moderate Christians don't see the radical right to be as threatening as the radical left. That common bond of religion, though, that makes people seem nonthreatening can be broken, and the reactionaries know it (check out this diary on dkos).

Being a non-religious person who doesn't ever want to deal with religion unless I'm forced to, I've been having trouble grappling with this issue. I didn't even Evangelical Democrats existed until a week ago when I found out that one read my blog, which kind of surprised me since I drop about 20 f-bombs a day on there.

If we limit ourselves to discussing simply to Evangelical outreach, we may be missing the larger issue of a general misunderstanding between the cultures of red and blue states. Do Democrats understand the cultures of the South and Midwest, or when our candidates try adding religious themes to their messages, do they come off posers? That's the vibe I got from Kerry whenever he mentioned his faith. He came off as a 15 year old with a New Found Glory patch on his backpack who's just trying to be punk, but isn't. After reading this JMM piece about how out of touch with reality the current Democratic Party leadership is, it makes me wonder if we have a clue not just about Evangelicals, but the culture of red states in general.

Clinton wouldn't have been elected without the Evangelical vote. They can be successfully reached out to and won over, and I don't think we'll need to change our positions to do such. Of course, we'll need to make our stances on those positions clearer, but I also think we'll need leadership that has a greater understanding of the red states. For example, instead of making Howard Dean chair of the DNC, I here that John Edwards needs a job...

Actually, Dean is one of the very few high-profile Dems who thought it was worth actually fighting hard in the solidly red states. It's thanks to Howard Dean's help that the Democrats picked up the governorship in Montana, and Tom DeLay had to actually work for his reelection this time, etc. (Of course, there's DeLay's own mendacity, but that's never hurt him none before.) Dean recognizes that focusing exclusively on the swing states may be good tactics, but it's a terrible long-term strategy.

Besides, Edwards doesn't want the job -- he clearly wants to run in 2008. And he's much more valuable to us as a front-and-center spokesman. He's a salesman, not a strategist.

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